You’re the expert of your own experience. That’s one of the central tenets of The Marin Foundation, something we talk about all the time. Who you are, how you identify--whether as gay, lesbian, transgender, queer, asexual, straight, bisexual, pursuing celibacy, ex-gay--that’s not up for debate. Your story is sacred, and nobody is better equipped to explain who you are than you.
That’s simple in theory and hard in practice. It’s never harder than when I receive emails like this:
Here’s my story…
From a very early age I knew I was different. I liked other girls. All throughout junior high and high school, I threw myself into academics and sports as a way to ignore my same-sex attraction and the glaring differences between me and the majority of girls at school. It wasn’t until college that I really found good female friends, and one in particular that I got close to. Stephanie and I were both on the basketball team, both pre-med majors and generally spent a lot of time together. And we began to fall in love, more or less.
At the same time, I was heavily involved with a campus ministry, eventually serving on staff. I knew my relationship was at odds with my work and what we taught as an organization. With the encouragement and support of the ministry staff and co-leaders, I ended up breaking things off with Stephanie. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
It was shortly after all this that I met Greg. He was a fellow leader for this group I was a part of, and was really understanding of where I was at. He told me he was interested in dating me, but was willing to give me the space I needed to figure out how I felt. After a lot of prayer, I decided I to trust God and date him. We’ve been dating for a little over a year and recently started talking about marriage.
Which is why I’m emailing you. I do love Greg and I want a relationship that honors God. But will I ever grow attracted to him? Will my feelings for girls (and for Stephanie in particular) ever go away? It’s hard to imagine a future with Greg without any romantic or sexual desire on my part, but I’ve been told God will bless my “leap of faith,” even on our wedding night. Is that true?
That’s not her real name, by the way. The entire email is actually an amalgamation of many similar one’s I’ve received. But the person and experiences that Julia represents are very real. Her attractions, affections and emotions are all real. Her interactions with God, however confusing they seem to her (and many times to me), they’re real too.
And with this respect for the validity of every person’s experience in the forefront of my mind, my response to these kinds of emails inevitably start something like this: "I can’t speak for God. (Neither can your pastors/spiritual leaders, by the way). If He is telling you to do something, you should do it. Far be it from me to get in the way of something that God has ordained."
But I’ve seen too much to leave it at that. For every email I get from a same-sex attracted person entering a straight relationship, I get another one from same-sex attracted person struggling in the midst of a straight relationship. Or leaving one.* For this latter group, the promised “cure” never came, despite their earnest desires and fervent prayers. Their same-sex attraction never went away and a desire for their partner never came. Some of these folks finally accept the reality of this failed experiment after years of marriage and a houseful of children. Others grow disillusioned on their honeymoon.
And this is what it is: an experiment. Starting a relationship with someone you don’t find attractive is a gamble. It might work (I’ve heard those stories too), and it might not. But what’s at stake with this gamble? If the relationship fails, what is the fallout?
In January I had the privilege of attending the Gay Christian Network Conference here in Chicago. It was an amazing time, filled with joyful celebration, warm fellowship and, of course, deeply emotional moments. Perhaps the most poignant of these for me came during one of the breakout sections designed for those in mixed-orientation marriages--that is, marriage in which one spouse is heterosexual and the other is not. The room was full of individuals who fit within this category in a variety of ways, from individual straight spouses to divorced gays and lesbians to couples just trying to figure it all out. It was led by John Smid, former director of the Memphis-based ex-gay ministry Love in Action, who has in recent years publicly denounced the organization and the entire theory of reparative therapy (more informally known as “pray away the gay”). The story he told, of coming out to his wife after years of pretending to be no longer gay, clearly resonated with those in attendance.
I can’t tell you what the many straight husbands and wives who shared their experience--with shaky voices--had to say. Those are their stories to tell, not mine. But any same-sex attracted individual who’s considering a straight relationship should know that this, right here, is what’s at stake. It is a gamble, and you are betting with your partner’s emotional and spiritual health. Every kiss, every cuddle, every minute of time you spend together might be, for you, a test. But for your partner, every sign of affection is just that: a sign of affection. It’s an opportunity to do what he or she is naturally inclined to do as a straight person in a relationship: fall deeper in love with you. So as you ask the question, “will my attraction to this person ever blossom?,” know that your partner likely has an answer in his or her mind, and grows increasingly certain of it by the day. The longer you take to make a judgement with this experiment, the riskier and more unfair it becomes for your partner.
So that's my word of caution with straight relationships? But if you decide to move ahead anyway, here’s my advice:
- Be honest with your partner. Never enter into a straight relationship without first telling your partner about your experience with same-sex attraction. Let them make the call about whether dating or marrying you is a risk they feel comfortable with. Don’t sugarcoat reality. If you’re not attracted to your partner, but hope to become so, explain it in those simple terms. Don’t downplay past relationships. Don’t fail to disclose your current and person-specific same-sex attractions. And don’t forget to continue this level of honesty throughout your relationship if you both decide to move forward. If this sounds like a death sentence to a relationship, that’s ok. It’s better that your partner knows exactly what he or she is getting into by dating or marrying you. Remember that he or she has the most to lose in this bet, so your partner has the right to know the reality of what’s going on.
- Be honest with yourself. The temptation will be to want so badly to fulfill the desires of everyone around you--your pastor, your Christian friends, your partner--by falling in love that you simply try to will yourself to do it. You’ll push that desire for other men or other women so far down that you’ll temporarily forget it’s there. All of us have experiences and thoughts that we repress. It’s as unhealthy as it is normal. But make sure that you carve out the space in your life to let those things bubble up to the surface. Maybe it’s with a trusted friend, in whose company you can say anything without the fear of judgment or biased advice. Maybe it’s with a therapist. Maybe it’s with an online community of other same-sex attracted individuals.
- Be honest with God. Maybe the space you carve out in your life to let things bubble up to the surface is that proverbial prayer closet. Maybe it’s a habit of shutting yourself in a quiet room for a time of brutal honesty before God. And maybe rather than joining the chorus of Christians who outline God’s plan for your life and suggest that any deviation from this plan threatens your eternal security, God has something different to say. Maybe Jesus was serious the Kingdom of God being Good News to all people, especially those who are supposed to be excluded. Maybe there really is nothing in all creation that can separate you from God’s love. Maybe God isn't scared if you are gay or lesbian after all.
That’s my five cents. And if you want some more, this is where you can find me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
* A quick note about my language: I'm reflecting some of the language preferred by those I've talked to when I say "straight relationship." In this case "straight" qualifies the relationship (denoting that it is between opposite-sex partners) and not the sexual orientations of wither party within the relationship. Others may prefer the term "opposite-sex relationship." Also, this post is limited to the experience of same-sex attracted, gay and lesbian identified individuals. To read more about mixed-orientation marriages for bisexual folks, click here.